The government gives local authorities (councils) in England over £5 billion each year to help fund the education of children and young people with high levels of special educational needs (SEN).
Each local authority receives a portion of this amount according to what they have spent on SEN in the past. The levels of this historic spend per child and young person vary considerably between local authorities. This raises questions about whether the level of grant to each council truly reflects levels of need and is a fair and equitable distribution. Therefore the level of education support a disabled child may get to be able to learn and make good progress at school could depend on where they live.
Today is the deadline for research organisations to submit an expression of interest to the government to undertake research to look into this issue.
The Department for Education says that the main aims of the research are:
- “To gather, collate, analyse and report on information about the incidence and costs of educational provision for pupils and students with SEN.
- To inform the development of funding policy intended to improve the way in which pupils and students with SEN are funded through funding formulae applied to early years, schools and post-16 provision.
- To recommend a formulaic approach to funding local authorities for high cost SEN provision, rather than one based on historic spending levels”.
Looking to move to greater equity in the distribution of funding for children with special educational needs is highly commendable.
However, finding a formula that truly reflects the distribution of need, and that parents of children with SEN understand and have confidence in is going to be extremely problematic. If there was an easy answer the government would have been using it by now.
More importantly, any moves to redistribute the existing grant to local authorities is likely to result in considerable gains in support for children with SEN in one area but significant losses for children with SEN living in another.
This will be particularly worrying for parents of children with SEN in areas receiving high levels of funding, such as London or Middlesbrough, compared with others. There is not the evidence to suggest that their children are receiving excess support or that their children are overachieving. No doubt parents of children with SEN in areas that receive lower levels of grants would be pleased with any increase in support. But few of them would welcome such changes if this was at the expense of children with disabilities elsewhere. Bringing support for children with SEN up or down to a common level of inadequacy would not be popular.
It is unlikely that a redistribution of the existing pot would contribute to an overall improvement in outcomes for children with SEN that the government hopes for in its SEN reforms.
The solution, which no doubt would be unpopular with the Treasury, would be to ensure sufficient funding so that children with disabilities do not lose out on the support they desperately need to fulfil their potential. But will this happen?